It's tempting to call Janet Edwards's debut Earth Girl a "little" book, even though it is, in fact, quite a hefty volume. This inherent smallness refers not to the number of pages, but the novel's narrow focus on one girl's experiences. Though heroine Jarra Reeath is meant to be emblematic of a whole class of people in her far-future world—"Neanderthals" whose immune systems react violently when they visit the extra-solar colonies scattered across the galaxy—her story aspires to be a highly personal one. Earth Girl weaves the tale of her first year of college, where she lies about her status as an "ape" in order to attend an archaeology and history program at University Asgard, built on the ruins of New York City.
Jarra's exceptionalism is a constant thread here: at the time of her enrollment, she has already attended more digs than any of her peers. Once she decides to hide her handicapped status and take on the identity of "Jarra Military Kid," it's via an unusually scrappy, sometimes-violent persona which makes her stand out from her off-world peers. And then, when Jarra learns more about her family of origin—a necessary plot turn in any YA book about an orphan, of course—well, that story is exceptional, as well.
Edwards's work isn't unique in this respect. YA shelves are filled with tales of exceptional orphan girls who transcend their meager origins to distinguish themselves and bring equality to their people. In fact, last year's Tankborn by Karen Sandler also seemed built on the same fairytale narrative frame. But in either book, I find the argument a bit puzzling; if our heroine is not truly a member of the oppressed class—or is an unusually brilliant, exceptional one—how strong can the argument for widespread equality truly be?
In truth, I wonder if Edwards's goal was not to tell a story of a fictional minority group and their plight, despite Jarra's protests to the contrary. Rather, Jarra is an exceptional Ape among off-worlders because it allows the author to better explore a cross-section of broader society. Edwards's worldbuilding is one of the two most compelling aspects of Earth Girl. In the society of 2788, each extra-solar colony has a culture all its own. There are the sexually provocative Betans, who partner in polygamous triads of two men to every woman; the prudish Gammans, who here seem to represent a society's everyman; the home-bound Alphas—mostly Apes, like Jarra, spurned by the other classes. And then there's the military, the class of people to whom Jarra wishes she belonged. Every aspect of their society is dictated by deployment and assignment—much like the military subclass of our own society.
It's fascinating to watch Edwards subtly develop each social caste. Sector identity informs the action of each character, and we get small glimpses of culture, as well. A scene where Jarra and love interest Fian watch their favorite respective television shows is particularly informative about the broader culture.
Fian set up the vid. "Now the plot of this is that a world got into Colony Ten phase. The colonists did their ten years but the portal failed, people had forgotten about them, and they were just stuck there."
"Yes." I giggled. "The Military forget planets all the time. I suppose that they also forgot the mandatory daily contact with the colonists, and to give them a backup portal."
"Exactly," said Fian. "The colony survived as best they could, cut off from civilization. It's now two hundred years later, and Stalea is a heroic girl who defends her village from the hostile beasts in the jungle."
"These are the hostile beasts that the incompetent Planet First team didn't notice before they cleared the planet for Colony Ten?"
"You've got the idea." (p. 126)
This worldbuilding is conducted effortlessly, too—not via infodumps or digressions but instead through the peculiar lens of Jarra's own voice; here, Jarra cares especially about the plot specifics in this vid, because Fian has told her that she's reminiscent of Stalea herself. It's only natural that she asks about her.
Voice is the other strong component; Jarra's is excellent. She's telling us the story, and her experiences, class, upbringing, and desires are all evident in each and every turn of phrase. Some of the turns of phrase are a bit cutesy and artificial-slang heavy, particularly in the opening pages: "If you're still scanning this, I expect it's just out of shock that an ape girl can write. 'Amaz! Totally zan!' you will cry to your friends in disbelief, but you know that I'm just the same as you, really" (p. 2).
But some of the slang is more complex than "amaz"; particularly pleasing was the eventual explanation of why Jarra, in the opening passages, is so fascinated by a particular celebrity's "legs."
Lolia oozed her way over to join us next. She exchanged a glance with Lolmack, and then gave the Deltan boys the same sort of lingering examination that Dalmora and I had just suffered. "Nice butts," she drooled.
There was a collective gasp from all the non Betans in earshot, including me. Hoo eee! Lolia had said the butt word! I know there were times in pre-history when it was acceptable in polite conversation, and I've heard it used in more daring Betan vids, but I'd never heard anyone say it in public before. Everyone says legs, and you can tell which bit they mean by the way they say it. (p. 38)
Small nods such as these to the deeper worldbuilding were nicely executed, like a satisfying punch line to a long-hinted joke. It's clear that Edwards thought every word choice carefully through, no matter how casual Jarra's language initially appears.
But voice is, at times, also the novel's weakest link, not in execution, but in result. Earth Girl is so totally voice-driven that the plot often loses focus. It does not, in fact, feel "plotted" at all. For the most part, it is a chronological account of Jarra's days. Readers are treated to endlessly detailed accounts of archaeological digs, the politics of archaeological digs, the science of archaeological digs—and occasional chapter-long descriptions of television shows. Because Edwards's worldbuilding is so strong, and because Jarra's voice is so naturalistic, much of this remains entertaining, but now and then more compelling plot points rear their head and are mostly dismissed by Jarra.
Take, for example, the long-awaited reveal about her parentage. Jarra finally decides to contact her birth parents deep into the second half of the book. She does so, and, unlike some of her also-orphaned friends, is rewarded by an immediate phone call with the people who gave her up to live off world. But this chapter is one of the briefest in the novel. Their actual conversation is breezed over in four paragraphs, and while Jarra assures us that "[This] call had been unbelievable, wonderful beyond anything that amaz or zan or any other words could describe" (p. 201), as readers, we're not privy to how, or why. Jarra chooses not to share these details with us, and while this is believable for her character—she's avoidant, and later in the narrative we find out just how avoidant she truly is—it's also a very odd choice for a book.
This oddness permeates the narrative. Jarra's laser focus on her work is, in some ways, compelling—how very refreshing to read about a girl so driven academically—but it also tries the patience of the reader. The overall structure is weak; compelling conflicts arise, then are hastily resolved in favor of still more descriptions of the process of archaeological excavation. Very few of these conflicts are drawn out over the course of the book to spur us to read further and deeper into Jarra's story. In short, if you find her world and her work interesting, then the book will be, too; if you're not already interested in the collegiate life of a young archaeologist in the twenty-eighth century, the narrative might be a slog.
Of note, of course, is the fact that this is a novel set during college at all—an era in a young adult's life that mainstream YA authors are often told to avoid. Though one US publisher—St. Martin's—has at times actively sought "new adult" manuscripts, others judiciously instruct their authors to rewrite college tales as occurring at secondary boarding schools. The fear typically seems to be the narrowing of one's audience: large market segments exist for tales about teens, or tales about adults, but fewer readers actively seek out college tales.
I'm glad the narrative framework remained intact for Earth Girl. The story is strongest when it's the most universal; canoodling on dorm sofas while watching movies is a keystone event in every college student's life, as are the grumpy professors and diverse student body Jarra encounters. The winnowing and refinement of her skills and interests are something that would realistically only happen during university, not during one's high school career. It's in the description of university life, even futuristic university life, that Edwards is most convincing. The college experience is strongly described, but Jarra's familial background and exceptionalism are a bit less well-rendered.
Yet it's easy to see why a story like Jarra's would be compelling to young adult audiences. Her central quest, scattered though it is, is one of recognizing and acknowledging the strengths she was born with while also honing her skills—a common enough quest for a YA heroine. And the chatty way she tells her story should be both familiar and appealing for any teenager.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. An articles editor for Strange Horizons, her short fiction is forthcoming with Aoife's Kiss and Spaceports & Spidersilk. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.